Actor Max von Sydow, whose career stretched across seven decades, died Sunday at the age of 90. The imposing Swedish star played the title character in The Exorcist and more than 100 other roles.
In his 20s, near the start of his career, von Sydow played chess with Death — and lost. Director Ingmar Bergman had cast the then-unknown actor as a medieval knight in The Seventh Seal (1957), which is set in a land ravaged by the plague. The knight tries to delay the inevitable by challenging Death to a game of chess. The agreement is that his soul won’t be claimed for as long as he can keep the game going.
In real life, von Sydow kept the game going for decades, through a plethora of onscreen lives. Ten other Bergman features cemented his stature on the art house circuit, and dozens of roles helped make him into an international star. Two of those films also helped make his career in English: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), in which he played Jesus, and Hawaii (1966), in which he played a prim and proper missionary who is all but undone by Julie Andrews before he even embarks on his journey.
Though tall and handsome, von Sydow wasn’t often viewed by directors as a leading man, and especially not as a romantic lead. His deep voice and stern aspect often led to his being cast in more severe roles. In his mid-40s, for instance, he played Father Merrin, the frail, elderly title character in The Exorcist (1973).
As von Sydow aged, his craggy face and steely gaze made him much in demand as a flat-out bad guy. He was a fedora-wearing assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975), Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980), a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again (1983) and a murderous bureaucrat in Minority Report (2002). Even Woody Allen cast him as a spoiler of sorts: In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), he played a reclusive intellectual who sneers at a world with which he refuses to engage.
But von Sydow also excelled in playing the diametric opposite of those dyspeptic souls: rugged farmers and working men overcoming hardship in such epic dramas as The Emigrants (1971) and Pelle the Conqueror (1987), which won him his first Oscar nomination.
Von Sydow was fluent in Swedish, Danish, English, Italian and French. That last one was spoken by one of his most rending characters: a helpless, wheelchair-bound father who discovers he has much in common with his paralyzed son in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). And for all von Sydow’s facility with language, he earned his other Oscar nomination for a character in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) who doesn’t speak a word.
The imagination of Hollywood producers being less than boundless, acting’s elder statesmen tend to be given mostly bit parts at the end of their careers, and von Sydow — who played old before his time — was no exception. But he invariably made his onscreen minutes count, whether guiding young star-warriors in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) or stepping in as the Three-Eyed Raven to guide young Bran Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones.